By Staff Sgt. Mike R. Smith, Guard Times Staff
SCOTIA, N.Y. — Wind gusts blast several Airmen as they load medical gear aboard a C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft at Stratton Air National Guard Base, here, in May. They make several trips to a nearby military pickup truck. Finally, it’s all aboard.
Eyes adjust to the lighting. Attention shifts to a new task: preparing for combat wounded. They connect and climb litters to create a puzzling mix of aluminum posts and nylon fabric, aligned bunk-bed style, along with the cargo cabin.
“We have four litter patients and two ambulatory patients,” says Maj. Christine Dicaprio-Yandik, flight nurse. But there are no “real” patients to load here. It’s a simulation.
Noise, vibration and temperature changes are some of the challenges faced on the flying hospital, says Dicaprio-Yandik.
“Also, keeping patients hydrated,” she yells over the engine noise.
The Aeromeds say their equipment is similar to a hospital’s but tailored to patient needs. Both patient and technician are reliant on what’s available in flight. Picking up patients in a war zone can demand a wide range of medical gear requiring a similar range of skills.
The aircraft taxis and lifts off the runway. It climbs through roller coaster sized stomach-jolts of turbulence on its way to cruising altitude. Once there, it seems eerily stable — a sweet-spot in an endless blue sky.
“The [aircraft] commander lets us know of approaching temperature changes, turbulence, and emergency situations,” says Dicaprio-Yandik.
The aeromeds unbuckle and then move about the cabin checking patients and equipment. Performing double duty as a patient and observer, Dicaprio-Yandik has a simulated gunshot wound to her right arm. She is considered an ambulatory patient or “walking wounded.”
Before an in-flight emergency exercise, Senior Airman Jared Semerad, one of two medical technicians on board, checks Dicaprio-Yandik’s chart, assesses her condition and prepares a patient-brief. Then the cabin pressure goes out in a simulated rapid decompression. The medical team scrambles for blue “quick-don” breathing masks and “walk-around” air bottles.
Their first priority is to ensure their own safety so they can assist the patients,” says Dicaprio-Yandik.
The training moves to patient care.
Tech. Sgt. Henry Panten walks through the cabin, passing sun-filled windows as he reads the medical chart of a litter patient. The patient, a rubberized practice dummy, has a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
“We get them to a higher echelon of care,” says Panten, who wears an olive-green flight suit with a red, yellow, white, and blue shoulder patch— the squadron identifier.
Panten, the in-charge medical technician, says that combat wounded are picked up from a Mobile Air Staging Facility where they are stabilized after being evacuated.
“The MASF is basically a tent in the field, like on the TV show “MASH,” says Panten, adding that an intermediary medical team determines which patients can be air-evacuated from the theatre of operations.
“It’s very rewarding,” he says, adding that a lot of education and training comes with the job.
About an hour into the flight there’s another emergency. The litter patient with a gunshot wound to the leg begins to have chest pains.
The Airmen quickly respond, check the patient’s chart, and use a state of the art monitor called a “Zoll,” which displays an irregular heart rhythm. They need a prescription for nitroglycerin. The aircraft’s commander connects a mock call with a physician on the ground to the crew’s headsets. The doctor provides permission to administer.
In-flight communications are a valuable asset, explained Dicaprio-Yandik, because they provide the ability to obtain detailed patient histories, communicate with specialists and prescribe drugs.
“All of our training is meant to prepare us to deploy to a war area or an area of conflict to take care of patients,” says Lt. Col. Kimberly Terpening, squadron executive officer, on the flight as an evaluator.
Terpening says the squadron has participated in Air Expeditionary Forces continuously deploying to Southwest Asia and Europe since the start of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
Lt. Col. Maureen Silver, the flight nurse, said she deployed twice providing valuable care in the air between Afghanistan and Germany in 2003 and Kyrgyzstan in 2004.
“The training is important,” said Silver. “It brings a level of familiarity with the aircraft and with the equipment used in the field.” She said that regular in-flight medical training using portable medical equipment heighten responses to medical emergencies.
The team secures equipment onboard and buckles themselves in for landing. Western New York has passed beneath them on their nonstop, two-hour flight to Buffalo and back to base.